“Demand not that things should happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and you will go on well,” the first-century C.E. Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote in his book “The Manual.” That simple statement encapsulates the core of Stoicism, a philosophy that was espoused by the Greeks and Romans of antiquity. For centuries, the Stoic school, which was founded in Athens around 300 B.C.E. by the philosopher Zeno of Citium, was the most influential philosophy in the Greco-Roman world. A leading exponent was Marcus Aurelius, known as “the Philosopher,” who was emperor of Rome for two decades in the second century C.E.
Stoics develop equanimity with respect to all external harm that is independent of them, and they try to abstain from all desire. They understand that only their opinions and impulses are under their control, whereas the body and the opinions of others are beyond their control. Accordingly, the Stoic carries out his moral obligations with restraint and reason, and accepts with tranquility all pain, sickness and even the death of dear ones.
In recent years, the Stoic way of life has gained adherents in Europe and America. Publications on the subject are prominent in the philosophy and self-help sections of bookstores in the United States. The Stoic wave began at the end of the 1990s, with the publication of philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s book “The Therapy of Desire” and Lawrence Becker’s “A New Stoicism.” Since then, there has been a steady flow of neo-Stoic literature, but in the past few years the stream has overflowed the banks of the philosophy departments and become a full-fledged trend. The past two years alone have seen the publication of “How to Be a Stoic,” “The Daily Stoic,” “The Practicing Stoic,“ “Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life,” “Stoicism: A Stoic’s Journey” and “The Daily Stoic Philosophy: Approaching the Generation Z.” And there’s also the forthcoming “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.”
Unlike Buddhism, Stoicism does not promise liberation from suffering, but focuses on deeds. That’s why certain businessmen and CEOs recommend a Stoic way of life. The startup guru Tim Ferris has made Stoicism a hot item in Silicon Valley – right behind mindfulness and microdosing. There are online courses in Stoicism, Stoic psychotherapy and even an annual “Stoic Week,” in which participants are urged to “live like a Stoic for a week.”
Actually, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Stoic practice rules out many types of behavior commonly considered humane. According to Epictetus, you must remain apathetic even if your child dies, and there is no justification for regretting the event. To attain this state, it’s necessary for you to imagine frequently that those close to you have passed away.
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This is a negative psychology, not a positive one. Epictetus’ recommendations for consoling the bereaved also sound tough. The Stoic should behave as though he shares the mourner’s grief but should not truly be regretful: There is no reason to be sorry about anything external. The Stoic should behave with composure, be sparing in speech, avoid laughing and also try not to speak about such subjects as sports or food.
What accounts for the renewed popularity of this harsh philosophy? The explanation may well lie in the political and cultural confusion that the present era, and the feeling of uncertainty about many areas of life. In the 20th century, political ideologies such as socialism, fascism and liberalism mobilized the public and their adherents strove to change society and the world. Stoicism, in contrast, maintains that you cannot control what others do, only your own actions and desires. Only by accepting external vicissitudes serenely can one achieve happiness.
In ancient Rome, Stoicism attained the height of its influence after the fall of the republic and the advent of the empire. At that point the citizens knew that they had been deprived of political freedom, and were subject to the whims of omnipotent rulers. All that remained for them was to act in a virtuous fashion and to accept their fate.
Similarly, the contemporary antidemocratic trends and crises constitute a platform for the Stoic posture. American blogs promote texts such as “A Stoic’s Guide to Surviving Trump.” Last April, The New York Times ran an oped piece titled “How to Serve a Deranged Tyrant, Stoically.” The author was Ryan Holiday, a former leading media adviser and marketing director of American Apparel, who turned to writing books on Stoicism and is the editor of DailyStoic.com.
Like many Americans, Holiday was appalled by Donald Trump’s election as president. But to his surprise, in early 2017 he was offered a job in the media unit of a department in the new administration in Washington. Though nothing came of the offer, for Holiday it was an opportunity to reflect on the Stoic’s attitude vis-à-vis political power. During the period of the Roman Empire, Stoics did not retire from the world, and in many cases held senior positions. “In the ancient world, as is true today, navigating political chaos was a pressing dilemma,” Holiday noted in the Times. “Philosophers were forced to decide whether to participate in, resist or simply endure the political rulers of their time.”
The most salient example of that dilemma concerns the Roman philosopher Seneca, who lived in the 1st century C.E. and was a member of one of the most powerful patrician families in Rome. When the emperor Nero ascended to the throne, Seneca became his adviser. As a realistic Stoic, he understood that the republic was moribund and that in the present situation he could not achieve any political goal through active resistance to the emperors. For a few years, young Nero heeded the advice of the Stoic philosopher, who was thereby able to keep the ruler’s extreme caprices in check. Seneca’s behavior was compared by some observers, in September, to that of the senior official in the White House who wrote in an anonymous opinion piece in The New York Times that he and others in the administration were working to protect the state’s institutions from the impulsive president.
On the other hand, Seneca provided the regime with legitimization, even when Nero began to display paranoid megalomania. When Nero murdered his mother, Seneca saw fit to assist in the cover-up of the crime. In those years he also became one of the richest people in Rome. Holiday, the former media strategist, could empathize. “I planned and carried out controversial publicity stunts, and used dishonest tactics with the public and the media [in the service of businesspeople],” he wrote.
When relations between Nero and Seneca began to deteriorate after about five years, the philosopher wanted to retire but the way out of public life was barred to him. When Nero set fire to Rome in a fit of madness, Seneca made large donations to rehabilitate the city, but in the year 65 he was accused by the emperor of having been an accomplice in a plot to assassinate him. Nero commanded him to commit suicide.
Seneca had no hesitation. “The wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can,” he wrote in “Moral Letters to Lucilius.” “He always reflects concerning the quality, and not the quantity, of his life. As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free.” After seeing to the dissemination of some of his writings, Seneca entered the bathtub and cut his veins. “You have had veins cut for the purpose of reducing your weight... tranquility can be purchased at the cost of a pin-prick,” he wrote. And acted on his advice.